IRONMAN WC, 2023 held in Nice, france
Updated: Sep 22
Welcome back masochists and insomniacs! Here's my IRONMAN WC recap. As usual, there's some strong language.
If you're reading this, you have at least some glancing interest in "process over product" so I will share: this was a struggle. Honestly, I did not want to write this report. After exchanging texts with a prior training partner buddy, she summed it up in a perfectly painful text:
That race recap sounds like most IRONMANS-- nice swim, bike is beautiful but challenging and the run sucks.
Oooof, Because most people think completing an IRONMAN is incredibly hard, yet IRONMAN athletes know a 14-hour result is somewhat pedestrian for an 8x finisher. It hurts because they're both RIGHT. Aint easy to live with the double-think required to accept the truth of both ideas.
At 14:01, this race took only slightly less time than my very first long-course race, IM-MOO Madison, WI which required 14:27. The artist in me thinks, "The End is in the Beginning." Happy accident. The athlete in me is just unhappy.
But Greg, you dum-dum. These are the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS. Yes. True. And there has been so much chaff and chatter about venue split and location changes and IRONMAN profiteering and blah blah blah that it would be easy to dismiss the accomplishment as somehow less than. As "Not Kona." Did I let this nonsense get to me? Maybe a little. I qualified with an unexceptional race time in Tulsa of 11:45, which to me suggested a very shallow field. Nevertheless, I took my 6th place after a good swim, decent bike, crap run.
After completing the World Championship course in 14 hours, I can safely say that critics of this new WC format can kindly STFU. It was incredibly hard and appropriate
for the top level of the sport. While it's not particularly insightful to say that it was physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually draining, here's some of what I saw and felt and learned along the way.
We got to Nice early enough to settle in. I avoid the pre-race events. The vibrating, tight energy that permeates the air around 2000 IRONMAN racers (100% males, in this case!) can easily turn positive relaxation dark. So I skipped the 5k, the banquet, the parade of nations.
Everything was super low-key. Took a few days to get the sleep rhythm aligned with a 5am race day wake-up. Nice carb load Friday. Check-in was smooth. Additional top-off Saturday. Bike drop-off was smooth. Early to bed with everything locked and loaded.
facts and feelings
1:10 for an average pace 1:50/100y
This split is consistent with prior swims. Garmin data shows mostly straight lines from point to point on the W-shaped course. Good result for my first saltwater swim without a wetsuit. Just cinched up the tri-shorts and plunged in.
Swimming the Mediterranean Sea was an absolute delight. Clear blue water, virtually a sheet of glass, the sunrise peeking over Castle Hill to the east was bright but not piercing. Did I race the swim? Of course. Had to pass a few dudes (handled, picked up stroke rate) and the goggles fogged up a tad. But this was also easily handled with only a little salt water in the eye.
Also consistent with previous splits.
AVG. power 143, NP 170
Avg. speed 15.8 MPH
max speed 40.9 mph
Here are some poetic attempts to describe this absolutely soul-crushing bike course...
...having your legs beaten bloody during a ballet or ...being launched down a water slide into a prison shower fight. Twice.
Am I being melodramatic? Sure. Have we met? We can laugh now, sure, but at the time it was living through hell with unblocked views of heaven...literally seeing landscapes that inspired Monet while a surly French poodle gnaws your posterior chain...
Okay. Deep breath. This was seven thousand feet of climbing and seven thousand feet of descending. Quite literally a beautiful, beastly climb from sea-level, up into gorgeous mountains and back down.
Two major climbs, first from mile 25-35 at about 6% grade the other major killer around mile 70-75 starting at about 5% and increasing to 8%. Lots of technical work--false flats, hairpins, gearing choices--between, just for fun.
First big climb to Col d'Ecre, which might be French for Butt Burner. One scouting report described it as an unrelenting hour-long climb in three big chunks. Accurate. I tried to keep my head down because every time I peeked ahead, all I saw was more road going up more mountain. Vicious.
Throughout the first third, about a dozen guys who were riding out of their aero bars told me they'd wished they'd gone with their roadie. Felt good about my decision.
The middle 40-ish miles of this course had plenty of twists and turns and lots of pretty French countryside to take in. Rollers. Long false flats, Some headwinds. Punched these out nicely despite 7500+ ft elevation.
When you train mostly alone on wide open American roads, cars can make you a little nervous, but you just don't think about how close you might get to other riders. I'm a confident cyclist, yet these dudes were riding close. I daresay they just all seemed very laissez faire about our handlebars being a scant few inches apart through narrow, open roads with lots of turns.
I'm normally chatty on the bike--thanking volunteers and letting people know where I am, and this was the most I've ever had to declare position and intent. I felt like an airplane pilot in a major airport airspace.
Was it beautiful? Oh my, yes. Some striking landscapes that I'm grateful to have experienced: Creeks, Cyprus trees. Broad open fields. Village roundabouts. A couple of long tunnels carved out of the mountains.
Of course, lest we take too much joy from this, I also witnessed EMTs handling a bike crash at the exit of one tunnel. They blew whistles to slow down riders.
Within and throughout this tough, tough workday though....
ALLEZ. ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ!!
Descending was both terrifying and thrilling. Like surfing the hood of a very skinny rollercoaster car. Missing two wheels. And rails. One particular descent through a couple of hairpin cutbacks had the added fun of two(!) motorcycles overtaking about two dozen cyclists two and three at a time. And the straightaways? I spent plenty of time close to 36+ mph. Wheeee!
This course absolutely defined the term "technical bike course."
The last big climb to Coursegoules was easily the most difficult 935 miles I've ever experienced on a bicycle. I'm not sure of the precisely correct pronunciation but "course ghouls" seems apropos.
Everything I thought I'd done right to prepare was a pale shadow. I spent a day going up and down Mt. Lemmon. Walk in the park. Raced Snow Canyon at the St. George 70.3, Gentle caresses. South Mountain more times than I can remember in 95+F heat. Butterfly kisses. All delightful little flits about the hillsides compared to the guillotine of miles 70-to-75.
But then back to the WHEEEE! on the final descends. Max speed 40.9
Because I was diligent about fueling and staying on plan through out these monstrous ascends and descends, my normal bike split of 5:40-ish was extended to 7 hours.
Did the technical demands and unrelenting climbs take their toll? Um... yes. The cycling term is "cracked," and there is no doubt in my mind that any cocky AG cyclists with fantasies of jauntily handling a route comparable to a Tour-de-France stage. were slowly and tortuously disabused of that notion by the cruel course ghouls that live on that ascend.
Had to have a lie down and a cry. Just sort of melted down from my chair to the floor into a puddle of overwrought protozoan mess. There wasn't even any chatter in my head. Just the blackness of the abyss staring into me with the cold, cruel indifference of an empty, entropic universe. This is understatement.
A thoughtful volunteer went and got Medical. They said some words to me. I got my shit together and got on with it.
Only now, weeks later, can I see how Camus wrote about Sisyphus and the Stranger, and Sartre wrote about existential angst. They rode bikes in France.
First loop was steady, strong and smooth. Second loop was shaky. Then my system basically shut down and tried to hard reset for the duration of the third loop. Couple of vomits. I literally couldn't hold down any gel, Gatorade, water. Nothing. Walked the fourth loop on fumes.
That said, I had enough clarity to appreciate what was arguably the MOST FRENCH THING I experienced: smelling cigarette smoke on the IRONMAN marathon course. Had to laugh at that.
Also on the plus side, I had a jaunty blue cooling towel and the pictures look like I'm cruising along. Inside, I was completely hollowed out.
If this reads a tad anti-climatically relative to the bike, well... that's because it was. The run course was smooth and flat and a little shaded and had plenty of aid stations with big metal frames that sprayed water down on us like human car-washes.
The French triathlon governing body requires runners to wear their bibs on the front. The delightful side-benefit of this "keep your ID visible" policy is that strangers will cheer you--you, specifically, by NAME!--as you go. It's absolutely the most humbling and flattering and kind and joyous positivity anybody could possibly ask for.
So while there is absolutely no internal mantra or mental gymnastics that can overcome an empty tank and ATP-depleted muscles, I just grinded this out step-by-step-by-step.
TOTAL RACE TIME
...nice swim, bike was beautiful but challenging and the run sucks...
Technical? Uh, yeah. Offensive. Relentless. Sisyphean.
The rest of the trip was an absolute pleasure. Ate like a cockroach that declared himself emperor. Saw many beautiful and rare sights in and around Nice, Naples, Sorrento, Capri. Took a bullet train to Rome, flew to New York where the Autumn weather in midtown Manhattan was cool and crisp. Saw some van Gogh paintings at the Met and some horses in Central Park.
Honestly, with the jet-lag and overall release of being done, I was low-key triggered by one of the van Gogh paintings. Never had that happen before. I had literally biked past places where he could have painted "Wheat Field with Cypresses."
And that? That is what pulls me back to this sport again and again. Having that in my life, getting to make that connection in my mind. Writing about it does not adequately express how that experience is so fulfilling and rich and delightful.
I might not ever be a truly great long-course triathlete, but the stuff that happens during the doing of it might make me a little better person.
OVERALL RACE GRADE: c
OVERALL EXPERIENCE GRADE: A
Writing and revising race report is a real therapeutic process. I’m still grappling with the idea that qualifying for and completing a World Championship course didn’t deliver what I sought from our sport.
I just expected to feel more accomplished. For me. Within my own measures of success, I just do not feel like I've raced my best race.
It's possible that I will only feel that I've raced my best race by reaching the podium. I don't think it's that I MUST WIN. No.
It's that I have to know that I put together my best possible race. Maybe the only truly objective measure of that comes from knowing that I can hang with the very best. Yes, I understand the contradiction of seeking an extrinsic result for an intrinsic sense of accomplishment, but I submit that these are intertwined concepts.
And even though I realize that this particular course made it impossible NOT to OVERBIKE, I still expect to be able to run well off the bike. After eight full IRONMAN races, it's unacceptable that I had to walk. Side note: I do not believe IRONMAN had "Gatorade Endurance" on course. Just the French version of Gatorade.
Maybe the way to run better is to "just" do marathons. See if I can earn some of the snazzy fashions the Boston Athletic Association hands out.
WITH GRATITUDE FOR…
Maximum gratitude for my lovely wife Susan and my wonderful kids, Peter and Veronica for their support.
I’m grateful to have access to expert professionals and gracious amateurs who generously share their wisdom and joyous energy.
Enormous gratitude to Coach Elizabeth Waterstraat!
I’m grateful to anybody willing to excuse my terrible smell, deplorable language and barbaric sounds during training and racing.
Thank you to all the on-course folks cheering and making signs and wearing all sorts of crazy outfits to show love and support. For strangers exercising.
I’m grateful that I’m able to race triathlons. I’m grateful to you for reading. See you at the next race. Yes.